As we head into the late '00s, the wave of '80s nostalgia is receding quickly. We've pretty much exhausted British New Wave. Enormous, dazzling-white Nike Air Force 1s have long since reconquered street fashion. And, in a bout of what can only be called collective insanity, a few beautiful young women even dare to don leg warmers. So, before Generation Y's fast-growing purchasing power displaces '80s nostalgia forever with platinum-plated collector's editions of Britney Spears'Oops! ... I Did It Again, the culture industries are gearing up to sell us the decade's detritus. I'm talking about Patrick Swayze, white denim, and Fletch— the last just repackaged in a special "Jane Doe" edition that unapologetically includes some of the worst special features ever stamped onto a DVD.
As a movie, Fletch is all but unwatchably bad. But as a cultural artifact, itis invaluable. Reagan had just been re-elected by a landslide when the film hit theaters in 1985, and Fletch reflects, in a strange and roundabout way, an era of wrenching liberal despair. While the enlightened bourgeoisie and their scruffy spawn were no longer running the country, they could at least laugh along with Chevy Chase as he poked fun at Reagan's America—the nouveau riche, the pig-headed cops, the Mormons.
Two years before Fletch infected movie theaters nationwide, Michael Kinsley boasted in Harper's that he was a reverse-snob: Not only did he self-consciously eschew the shmancy Lacoste alligator—he and his friends sported decidedly down-market discount polo shirts emblazoned with the J.C. Penney fox. * And so it is with the always-informal Fletch, who rocks his L.A. Lakers jersey while posing as an "amiable junkie"—and also while cracking wise with his uptight editor in the newsroom of his very serious paper.
Watching Fletch again, I experienced the shock of recognition: The film perfectly captures the rise of the ironically detached hipster sensibility. Chevy Chase, then at the height of both his career and comedic powers, plays an investigative reporter named Irwin Fletcher. Throughout the movie, he dons a seemingly endless series of "comical" disguises in the haphazard pursuit of a big scoop on the Los Angeles drug trade. And yet he always radiates the same genial contempt. Fletch is handsome, self-confident, and he certainly sounds affable. Listen closely, though, and you'll find that his pleasant demeanor masks the condescending jackass within.
Fletch has no time for squares. He's happy to charge many a Bloody Mary and steak sandwich to some rich asshole while he's infiltrating a posh country club.
But then again, he can't resist muttering some pointless crack about tacos when a Latina housemaid offers him a polite "buenos dias." Talk about a class act.
Any working stiff, rich or poor, gets the same rhetorical punch in the nose from our Fletch—but it's always carefully concealed, the better to avoid getting a well-deserved actual punch in the nose. Even when he's being "charming"—notably when he's wooing the winning WASP Mrs. Stanwyk—he comes across as a childish boor.